Description of Project

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Educating Wonder Away: An Attack on Victorian Education in Dickens and Carroll

Kolbie Astle

Thesis advisor: Dr. Brian McCuskey
Description of Project:
My honors thesis will analyze the characteristics of Victorian elementary education as portrayed in distinctive scenes of learning in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Oliver Twist and Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels. I plan to contribute to two critical conversations: the reflection of Victorian cultural and societal norms within their education system, specifically focusing on their rigid class structure and suspicion of individual benefits, and the reflection and critique of the Victorian education system within novels of contemporary figures, such as Dickens and Carroll.

According to Richard D. Atlick in his English Common Reader (1958), because of the Jacobin scare in the 1790’s, the Victorians had renewed motivation to educate the working class. If children were in the care of teachers before they became workers, then teachers could train them to not only be better workers but also make sure they maintained class structure. Thus, many policymakers pushed for requirements in elementary education. However, due to lack of funding and a draw toward efficiency, the Lancaster-Bell monitorial system created classrooms that looked more like factories churning out automatons. Kate McReynolds (2007) and Elizabeth Gargano (2008) agree with Atlick in that curricula were often centered around making money for the school; because few grants existed for public education, money was given based on student performance. Even if one student failed, that was money lost for the next year, which gave teachers incentive to teach for examinations rather than individual education. Atlick, McReynolds, and Gargano argue that just as citizens of Britain were taught that the social structure was best for the overall welfare of Britain—despite individual hardship—the welfare of the school as a whole was more important than individual enjoyment in learning.

If the upper class—which would be the teachers and monitors in the education system—were not interested in individual enjoyment, then, Atlick and Clotilde de Stasio (2010) maintain that education was meant to fill a child with knowledge of how to be satisfied with and better their social strata as opposed to be filled with dreams of how to move beyond it. As such, using literacy for enjoyment (i.e. reading any kind of fiction or entertainment) went against the aim for education. Words and definitions were memorized, and the ability to recall any information learned was essential to passing classes, which generally instilled an intense antipathy for books in the students. John R. Reed (1990) emphasizes that the kinds of books that were allowed illustrated the consequences for children who disobeyed their parents and superiors, effectively using them to mold children’s wills to the ideal social class. In this way, schools were clearly not meant for educating individuals; they were meant for training future workers.

It is not disputed that Dickens meant for his novels, particularly Hard Times, to be a critique of Victorian education. Matthew Bevis (2010) claimed that Dickens used most of his works as public oratory to release his opinions on the state of British society. Gargano is adamant that Dickens meant to use his novels as key figures in the defense of children and their working and educational environments. She further argues that Dickens uses characters and settings in Hard Times to exaggerate the norms of education as a way to critique them. McReynolds, however, disagrees that Dickens was exaggerating. She cites popular theorist at the time John Stuart Mill’s life as a prime example of what Dickens depicted in Hard Times; after years of intense study and memorization, the student is left with nothing but a whole bunch of facts and little understanding of meaning. Patrick Bratlinger (1990) further twists Dickens’ Oliver Twist to claim that, though Dickens should be an advocate for literacy as defense against crime, as a British liberal, his writing indicates that he sees literacy and education as a road to crime.

Philip Collins (1964) recognizes that Dickens was not so revolutionary in his ideas, and that other authors and figures of the time used their writing to indict the rigid class and education system. However, sparse research exists in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as it pertains to education specifically. John Rowe Townsend (1996) does claim that both Alice and Through the Looking Glass have often been interpreted in symbolic or psychological terms. I intend to argue that, in fact, the Alice novels provide a very interesting setting in which to analyze Victorian education, especially considering Carroll wrote the first novel for a child under his tutelage and the second for his own purposes.

With these conversations in mind, my honors thesis will add a unique perspective on Hard Times, Oliver Twist, and the Alice novels by analyzing specific settings of learning and how they characterize and critique Victorian education. I will argue that each novel presents its own unique environment for learning, and I will explore how each character plays a role in a child’s education. Because much analysis has been done on Hard Times, by analyzing Carroll’s novels, I hope to validate Collins’ claim and add Lewis Carroll to the list of advocates for children’s individual education. I also hope to study Oliver Twist in a way that modifies Bratlinger’s argument; instead of Dickens being against literacy, I argue that he is simply against a certain kind of literacy. I will engage in both secondary criticism and primary source documents, exploring first-hand experiences with Victorian education and school models that would have been used by instructors so that I may more fully understand and better analyze my literary sources. My main questions throughout the project will remain: How does this scene reflect and/or critique known Victorian education styles or beliefs? How does this analysis differ or enhance the analysis of my secondary sources? My approximate conclusion, though I’ve not complete the project, is that each of these novels rejects the ideas of mass education in favor of a more individualized curriculum.

Before I was a Literary Studies emphasis, I planned on being an English educator because I believe that, if used in the right way, literature can lead students to beneficial facets of their minds they never knew existed. In my various studies of British literature, especially during the Victorian period, it was so interesting to me to see how authors responded political and educational trends at the time, and one of those trends was a major focus on rules and less of a focus on reading and the imagination. I love studying how literature works in the political sphere, and I especially love 19th-century British literature, so this project seemed like the perfect combination of the two.
Tasks to be Completed
As I continue researching and analyzing the text, I may narrow my focus to structure of the scene, the importance of literature, authoritative figures, what use the monitorial system plays in each novel, or a combination of these. My research will include that of primary text, more secondary text, and further analysis of the individual scenes in the works of literature I selected.
As I begin drafting, I intend to have an opening section dedicated to the historical and cultural context. Then, I will have three sections, each dedicated to a specific learning setting, organized from most traditional to least traditional: Hard Times, Oliver Twist, then Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and/or Through the Looking Glass. This organization will allow me to follow a logical line from most discussed text to least discussed text, indicating that I used a solid foundation upon which to build my own analysis. The conclusion will be a short section discussing all three settings in conjunction with one another, effectively wrapping up my argument.
During the course of the rest of the semester, I will continue researching and adding to my bibliography so that, by the end of finals week, I will have a completed bibliography and a rough outline of the project. Working on each section separately, I will attempt to have drafted the historical context and first section by the end of January. The second will be drafted in February, and the third will be drafted in March. The complete penultimate draft will be due to my advisor and reader no later than April 1st. They will return the draft with their comments to me no later than April 9th, and I will revise and edit my thesis until finals week of spring semester, during which I will defend my thesis.
Final Product
My final product is to be a critical essay of approximately 30 pages.

Working Bibliography

Atlick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. Print.
Baker, Joseph E. The Reinterpretation of Victorian Literature. Princeton: Princeton Universtiy Press, 1950. Print.
Brantlinger, Patrick. "How Oliver Twist Learned To Read, And What He Read." Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures. 381-403. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2012. MLA International Bibliography. Web.
Cross, K. Patricia. “The Adventures of Education in Wonderland: Implementing Education Reform.” The Phi Delta Kappan 68.7 (1987): 496-502. JSTOR. Web.
De Stasio, Clotilde. "Starving Vs Cramming": Children's Education And Upbringing In Charles Dickens And Herbert Spencer." Dickens Quarterly 27.4 (2010): 299-306. Academic Search Premier. Web.
Fletcher, Anthony. Growing Up in England: An Experience of Childhood. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.
Gardner, Phil. The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England. London: Croom Helm, 1984.
Gargano, Elizabeth. Reading Victorian Schoolrooms. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Ghosh, Peter and Lawrence Goldman (Eds.). Politics and Culture in Victorian Britain. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Web.
MacKenzie, John M. (Ed). The Victorian Vision: Inventing New Britain. London: V&A Publications, 2001. Print.
Martin, Jane. Women and the Politics of Schooling in Victorian and Edwardian England. New York: Leicester University Press, 1999. Print.
May, Trevor. The Victorian Schoolroom. Princes Risborough: Shire, 1994.
Mitch, David Franklin. The Rise of Popular Literacy in Victorian England: The Influence of Private Choice and Public Policy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.
Newsome, David. Godliness and Good Learning: Four Studies on a Victorian Ideal. London: Murray, 1961. Print.
Scott, Patrick. Culture and Education in Victorian England. London: Bucknell University Press, 1990.
Townsend, John Rowe. Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children’s Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996.
Tross, Ruth. "Dickens And The Crime Of Literacy." Dickens Quarterly 21.4 (2004): 235-245. Academic Search Premier. Web.

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